The Ecology Action Centre and Living Oceans Society have partnered together in challenging Environment Canada’s decision to approve genetically modified Atlantic salmon eggs. The case will be heard in Ottawa’s Federal Court on Tuesday.
The environmental groups contend the government agency did not follow its own legislative rules and conduct a full risk assessment before allowing Massachusetts-based biotech firm, AquaBounty Technologies, to produce GM-salmon eggs on Prince Edward Island.
CTV News is reporting that Mark Butler, with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax says there is a risk of genetically modified salmon escaping from land-based tanks and mixing with wild salmon, and the consequences of that happening is really unknown to us.
“Once that fish breeds with another wild salmon, you can never put the genie back in the box,” he said before leaving for the two-day hearing in Ottawa. “This technology slightly increases the growth rates of fish, so they get to market faster. Compare that benefit to the risk to wild stocks. If genetic contamination did occur, it would have a huge impact on the recreational fishery.”
AquaBounty Technologies still waiting for FDA approval
The Boston, Mass.-based company claims it has developed a way to make Atlantic salmon grow twice as fast as normal by modifying eggs with genes from chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called the ocean pout. That information is enough to scare most people, and has already given the fish the nickname, “frankenfish.”
It has been a bit over 20 years, now, but the technology is still being held up in the regulatory process, now focused on U.S. approval by the Food and Drug Administration, seeing that Environment Canada has given the GM salmon the greenlight. But the very concerns raised by Canadian environmental groups are what has kept FDA approval at bay.
NPR News reported in June this year that two questions are being raised about the safety of GM salmon: “What would happen if these fish got out of the land-based facilities where they’re grown and escaped into the wild? Would genetically modified salmon push out their wild counterparts or permanently alter habitat?”
The questions were tackled in a study conducted by a team of scientists led by Robert H. Devlin, a scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They reviewed over 80 studies that looked at growth, behavior and other trait differences between genetically modified and unaltered salmon.
The scientists used this information to determine what might happen if GM salmon were to get loose in the oceans. The team found that a growth hormone gene was taken from one fish, and combined with the promoter of an antifreeze gene from another fish. This combo speeds up and increases growth, making the salmon grow faster.
However, messing with the genes also affects other traits in salmon. Genetically modified salmon eat more food, spend more time at the water’s surface and tend to stay by themselves, rather than congregate. The biggest finding? The GM salmon’s immune functions are reduced. These findings raised another question: Would the altered traits make GM salmon less likely to survive in the wild?
Fredrik Sundström, one of the study authors and an ecologist at Uppsala University in Sweden says we can’t go assuming that just because a salmon has been genetically modified, they would die in the wild. He points to invasive marine species.
“It’s analogous,” he says, to invasive species. “Invasive species also didn’t evolve in the environment where they are now invading, and they still are able to survive and flourish. We could argue along the same lines with the [genetically modified] fish.”
According to Sundström, “it’s very difficult to predict any ecological consequences before these fish are actually in nature, when it’s kind of too late to do anything about it.”
There are a lot of questions still to be answered, particularly by AquaBounty. We all know better than to bet on a sure thing because something can go wrong, and accidents do happen. But do we want to take that chance? We will have to wait for the final decision after the hearing on Tuesday.